Friday 26 April 2019

I don't believe the detailed accounts of dreams that abound in psychoanalysis and spirituality

I have rather suddenly realised that, for decades, I have been not-believing the detailed accounts of dreams that I read all over the place.

I suppose I must have read many tens of thousands of words of detailed dreams in the books of Freud, Jung and their descendants; and in all manner of non-fiction on spiritual and paranormal themes... And I have been quietly not-believing them all along.

This was triggered by hearing a lecture (by a Rudolf Steiner followers - and Steiner gave detailed accounts of dreams) - in which he described in detail a dream he supposedly had, with various spiritual symbolisms and implications; exciting, weird, moving... and realising that I Didn't Believe It. No Way!

I am very interested by dreams - much more so than most people, and for more than forty years - and I have of course had many thousands of dreams... several per night. But never have I had a dream that could accurately and honestly have been described in the detailed and descriptive way used in so many published accounts.

What I recall from dreams is much more like images, or short segments - I cannot remember the stages and transitions - and I beyond such snatches, I would not find it possible to verbally-describe or to write-up the dream in a satisfactory 'public' way - a way that really captured its actual quality. The dream falls-to-pieces in my hands when I attempt to communicate it.

Furthermore, I have never (in real life) met anyone who was convincingly able to do any better or more than myself.

And yet - I am asked to believe that all over the place, in all kinds of situations, are a majority of people who can recall their dreams in detail and describe them satisfactorily - rather like short stories by Henry James! - to the extent that entire edifices of insight and knowledge have been built upon this foundation. (Yes, I'm talking about you, Sigmund...)

As I say - I Don't Believe It. I believe, instead, that the meaningful and sequential dreams, the exciting and moving dreams - as they appear in the spoken and written accounts - are fabricated; consciously or unconsciously; wittingly or unwittingly; whether from from joining-up genuine fragments or from whole-cloth; whether from wishful thinking or simply with degrees of dishonesty ranging from casual self-deception to calculated manipulation.

The thing about real/ actual dreams is that they are not meant to be remembered. They surely have a function - or at least represent the workings of a process, albeit one that remains mysterious; but they are not created to be remembered, or else people would be able to remember them - whereas many people I have spoken with claim not to dream, at least not usually.

I am not saying that dreams are meant not-to-be-remembered - but that clearly there is not a functional mechanism or instinct by which they are remembered. As soon as we wake, we can feel the dream sliding through our grasping memory, leaking away even over just a few seconds - and much too rapidly to capture.

There are some specific dreams that I do remember in greater detail (although still aware that much has gone). These dreams probably do have some kind of different or additional function, I can probably lean something from them. But even these rare, clear, significant-feeling dreams lack the kind of clear, sequential, recall-ability that we take for granted in waking life. 

Dreaming is a qualitatively different state from awake consciousness - in particular time passes at an extremely different rate, and the dreaming consciousness is a different person than the waking consciousness.

And that difference is exactly why I am convinced that people don't remember dream content in the ways claimed. After all, if one dreams many hours in a few seconds (as I often have done, and others have reported); it is not surprising that this cannot be expressed in terms of waking life - writing-up a dream is like trying to describe in words a piece of music, a sculpture or a smell!


Matthew T said...

But never have I had a dream that could accurately and honestly have been described in the detailed and descriptive way used in so many published accounts.

I was about to gainsay you on this, until I realized that... the only dream that I can remember and could tell in vivid detail, as a tale, is not-coincidentally the only dream I believe has been sent to me by God, for a Purpose. (Think of Faramir / Boromir's dream, which they were able to recollect.)

I think it's pretty clear, you know if we adopt your usual philosophy of knowing-things-instinctively, that most people do feel that they "know" that dreams are important (which is why everyone is so interested in them), and by extension this suggests that indeed they really are important - even if we aren't meant to remember them.

James Higham said...

I can recall details within dreams but the beginnings and ends ... not so much.

Karl said...

The evanescence of dreams was a commonplace for Isaac Watts:

Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the op’ning day.

And for Pushkin: his verses "To Chaadayev" were much quoted by Russian revolutionaries even though they contained the prophetic warning "Our youthful illusions have dissolved like a dream, like morning haze."

And so on. It does make one wonder at the credence given to Freud's case histories.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Karl - Indeed.

In the end, it is a question of whether the account 'rings true' - and these don't; not least because the gaps and uncertainties get left-out or smoothed-over. The sheer silliness, the way dreams so often 'degenerate' into drivel, also seems to be missing.

Gerard ONeill said...

Joe Griffin’s ‘expectation fulfillment theory’ of dreams is to my mind the best explanation for the issues you raise.

He doesn’t rule out ‘special’ types of dreams e.g.: seeing certain events in the future, but most dreams are fairly humdrum and domestic affairs not meant to be remembered.

Seijio Arakawa said...

What I found complicates the issue further is that, when you pay attention, almost everyone's dreaming and subsequent recall seems to work slightly differently. Individual differences in consciousness?

To me, the analogy to writing down a piece of music with words seems valid. First, the flavour of things that are remembered clearly is not represented. Second, the removal of things that are forgotten removes clearly essential context from the things that are remembered clearly. Things that make intuitive sense in context are non-sense out of context, and there is a temptation to force them to make sense by inventing a different context. This context is necessarily simpler than a dream-context and therefore writing down dreams is an Ahrimanic scheme.

That doesn't mean written down dreams don't contain some truth of the original experience, but they are (partially remembered) sense wrapped in (Ahrimanic, constructed) nonsense. That's not too different from your report of Steiner's mysticism, such that Steiner was able to take a valid but partial intuitive insight and then wrap it (almost in real-time, using his considerable intellect) in swathes and swathes of logically-constructed but completely wrong systematizing.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ara - Yes, that's it exactly! Well said.